Water Retention

Maybe the fact that Metro-Dade County buys bottled water for its employees doesn't surprise anybody. Maybe it should.

Granted, there are some legitimate uses for bottled water. Rehabilitative Services, a division of the Human Resources Department, needs distilled water to mix addiction-treatment drugs. The Metro-Dade Transit Agency has mechanical considerations - car batteries and sensitive machinery. Parks and Recreation places jugs in lifeguard stands for emergency hydration of seawater swallowers. And many departments have one or two offices in especially old or remote buildings whose pipes flow only with nonpotable H2O.

Protecting old buildings is fine. Saving swimmers is better. But these are relatively rare circumstances, certainly not enough to justify Metro's oceanic bottled-water budget, which amounts to more than $150,000 per year worth of Silver Springs purified or distilled water, purchased in five- and one-gallon jugs from Palm Water in Miami, dispensed from coolers also supplied by Palm Water, and paid for by county taxpayers. More than twenty departments are watered regularly; allocations range from a trickle ($300 for the Independent Review Panel) to a deluge ($22,000 for the Department of Judicial Administration).

Why such exorbitant liquid assets? For one thing, it seems that bothering with the tap is too much trouble for some civil servants. "Our bottled water is mostly for the judge's use, so that he doesn't have to go out into the hallway or downstairs to get a drink. In each chamber there would be one machine," says Betsy Andrade in courthouse procurement. Other departments tell similar stories - mobile trucks, road crews, county workers who need cold water. But rather than lug around the costly ($3.05 per five-gallon jug) Palm water, it couldn't be too much hassle to fill bottles from the faucet, or to drive the county car down to the neighborhood supermarket and spend 25 cents per gallon at the Aqua-Vend machine.

Some departments cannot even offer convenience as an excuse, and it seems much of the purified water is splashing across Metro teeth simply because employees don't like what the county has to offer. "Have you ever seen the water over here?" says Bob Wallace, a somewhat defensive law librarian in the downtown courthouse. "I don't know if it's dangerous or what, but it is discolored. It's kind of rust colored, urine colored. It's gross-looking."

"Our water looks funny, it's cloudy and tastes funny," concurs John Topinka, an analyst with the budget department.

The county's fluid fussiness is especially galling given the fact that the pastel-hue water is perfectly healthy. Or so says Harvey Kottke, whose department is responsible for testing such factors as hardness characteristics and bacterial content. Kottke insists that the problem is not that the water's too hard, but that county employees are too hard on the water. "All the drinking water in the county meets drinking-water standards," he says drily. "That's based on analyses that are submitted and our own analyses. You may have some people who don't like the chlorine taste, and because of that someone may choose to buy bottled water, but it's not unhealthy, and I can't think of any case where bottled water was bought because of the tap water not meeting standards."

So are taxpayers showering county offices with a quarter-million gallons of luxury just because of a little chlorine taste? That's exactly what Metro Commissioner Charles Dusseau wanted to know when he raised the issue at a September 24, 1990 meeting of the Internal Management/Tourism Committee. "We review a whole series of purchasing agreements," explains Bill Dobson, Dusseau's executive aide. "Everything from food for the zoo animals to...you just name it. When bottled water came up, we said, `That's an awful lot of bottled water.'" Dusseau, says Dobson, believed that the county should be putting its money somewhere other than where its mouth is. The Committee agreed, issuing a request that the county survey its departments to determine why bottled water was the beverage of choice. The sweet sound of responsible cost cutting was in the air.

"I remember that they were considering cutting it out," recalls Larry Barditch, vice-president of Palm Water. "It seems to me it was mainly the smaller departments that were questioned. As far as judicial, I don't think anyone is going to yank anything away from the judges, whether it's bottled water or whether they want massages in the parlor."

Massages weren't mentioned in a summary memorandum from last October, in which the county manager's office discussed the results of the survey, reiterating the general problem of facilities without potable water, as well as the drug-mixing and disaster-provision needs of specific departments. But the memorandum concluded with a disturbing revelation: "During the survey, a number of County offices provided insufficient justification for the use of bottled water. In these instances they were requested to evaluate their requirement to ensure that bottled water is only utilized where it is necessary for County employees or the public." The memo didn't discuss what constituted "insufficient justification," but might not the tetchy taste buds of Metro office workers qualify?

It would seem not. Almost a full year later, the enterprise seems to have dissolved. Gary Fabricant, the assistant director of procurement who conducted the survey, did not keep copies of the original responses; Bill Dobson does not recall ever having seen the October memo. No one seems to know which county offices could not justify their water, and some department officials, such as judicial administration's Betsy Andrade, do not remember participating in any such survey.

Despite the evaporation of concern, some departments insist that the apparently nonexistent administrative action has been successful in drying up their thirst. And the concerned parties who made the first splash seem satisfied. "We were proud because we got someone to think about it," says Dobson. "But it's not the first priority item on our list, I'm afraid." In April's budget meetings, he says, Dusseau will no doubt scrutinize the expenditure. For now, though, cooler heads prevail.


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